The Limits Of Social Media Soft Power

Watching the current war in Ukraine has been hard. Through vast volumes of social media, the bravery of Ukraine’s military and moral strength against Russian savagery has been nothing less than breath taking.  TikTok, Facebook, YouTube represent very effective methods of getting messages out worldwide.

In the newest domain, Cyber Space, social media platforms can - and in the case of Ukraine - have turned social media into soft power (uniting a fractious NATO) eventually into some hard power (supplying arms to Ukraine.) And it has certainly stirred the chattering political classes to a blood frenzy – Ukrainian blood, their frenzy.

However, such “soft power” derived from the Cyber Domain’s social media doesn’t ultimately stop hard bombs. Nor does it stop, the grinding, casualty adverse warfare from an opponent who could care less what you think and who is impervious to your soft power “social media.” And it will likely contribute to a numbing and decline of popular support. The Cyber Generation is about to find out there are limits to social media’s  power.

“Hard Power” Pipes and “Soft Power” Water

Cyber Space can be place where hard power is exercised. The sheer bluntness of “hard power” actions in cyber space – for example, shutting down an electrical power grid or fouling up a gas/oil pipeline systems – is a tricky business; especially when you effect large, traditionally non-combatant populations.
  
Russia, China, and  the U.S., all have organizations built to do “hard” power cyber – whether it be U.S. Cyber Command, or Russia’s APT 28/29, or China’s PLA Unit 61398.  However, there is a certain “mutually assured destruction” in this exercise of hard cyber power.  And it has been used gingerly.

Weak Power and Winning Domains

In the Cyber Domain, “Water” soft power has been used with glee - in the past by the Russians; today by Ukraine.  However, it has not translated well on the ground of the Ukraine battlefield.  Why? Russia’s success has been its adoption of the 20th century model of controlling the domains of land, sea, and air - where it has a clear advantage. 

And with superior numbers and fire power, Moscow and Putin seem intent on destroying a free Ukraine.  In short, Russia has neutralized the cyber “water” with a grinding type of warfare that is clearly working well  - especially when you can control the soft power of social media internally to your own country and don’t care about external social media; either dismissing it as lies and or simply ignoring it.

Information Fatigue Coming

Another challenge for social media soft power, soon to come, is the inevitable challenge of information fatigue.  We’ve seen this during the COVID crisis of the last two years.  People simply grow tired of the constant negative messages and “doom scrolling.”  The problem is this often happens well before the political leaders and opinion leaders in the press and “expert class” get the message. As I said, they are obsessed by the story.  The public busy with their daily concerns – sympathetic -- but less so. 

The decline of popular support - public fatigue - can start slowly and quickly build toward cynicism and a desire to disengage.  It must be constantly battled - especially through what will likely prove a long and difficult conflict as Ukraine.  Messaging supporting Ukraine and the war crimes of Russia must be kept up to battle it.  But, understand, there will be some loss of support over time as some people get sick of hearing it.

The Long Fight

In the final analysis, the best that social media can do right now is continue to provide justification and support to arming Ukraine to better fight in the other dimensions.  But, make no mistake, as vital as that is, it will not stop a determined and ruthless enemy from its goal.  

Like sanctions, social media has its limits.  And needs to be used along with hard power to win the day.


Ronald A. Marks III is a former CIA officer, Capitol Hill staff, and President of ZPN Cyber and National Security Strategies.  He is a Visiting Professor at George Mason University and a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council

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